The killer bus

mccandless bus

The Stampede Road bus that last week lured a second woman to her death/Wikimedia Commons

All deaths in the Alaska wild are not the same.

When someone goes looking for danger and ends up dead, that’s on him or her.

But when people are tempted into tragedy by the idea that what they are doing – no matter how personally thrilling to them – seems pretty safe, a little of that is on all of us.

Two people have now died crossing the Teklanika River on the north side of Denali National Park and Preserve trying to reach a bus that has become a shrine to a dead man named Chris McCandless. The latest to perish was a 24-year-old newlywed.

McCandless – the self-proclaimed “Alexander Supertramp” – was one of those who went looking for trouble. He cut himself off from family and friends and set off into the wilderness to begin, in the words of his signed scrawl found after his death in an abandoned bus along the Stampede Road, “THE FINAL AND GREATEST ADVENTURE.


He found the ultimate in lost – death. Nobody comes back from that one.

More than a few Alaskans believe McCandless was simply nuts to use a politically incorrect term for the mentally ill. But ever since the writer John Krakauer concocted a mythical version of McCandless’s life in the wild and eulogized him in a supposed non-fiction work titled “Into the Wild,” there have been young people following in the footsteps of McCandless’s pilgrimage.

The folks in Healy in Central Alaska at the start of the Stampede Road would just as soon that end, but there is no sign that is happening or will. “Into the Wild” is now taught in some American schools as a way to “prompt class discussion on whether one should find oneself through isolation in nature and how such actions conflict with being an active member in society,” according to a teaching guide from Prestwick House. “McCandless’s attempt to inject himself totally into the natural wilderness also raises questions about the drawbacks of a society immersed in consumerism. Students can discuss views on consumer culture and material possessions.”

This exposure is sure to keep the pilgrims coming for decades on. It is inevitable more of them will get in trouble, and almost certainly more will die.

Eric Halfacre has made an effort to warn them at the Chris McCandless web page where he offers advice on how to get to the bus and a decent explanation of how to cross glacial rivers that is just about worthless to someone with no experience with such things.

“I have tried to put out accurate information about the hike and warn hikers about the danger, and that…has had limited success,” Halfacre messaged Monday.

No surprise there. Telling people what to do is a lot different from their learning what to do. And unless people are well trained, panic can in the blink of an eye zero out what they have learned.

The big surprise is that only three people – all women – have died to date trying to reach the McCandless bus. There have been other close calls. Nobody seems to have kept a count on those rescued, but rescues have become a regular summer feature.

The Tek – as many call the Teklanika – is a big, cold, fast glacial river. The state is full of these rivers, and it doesn’t take much for one to kill you. Crossingsoften don’t look that hard until you’re halfway in, and your legs go numb from the cold. Or you simply trip and fall down.

You can watch some hikers getting into serious trouble here:

They put on a good demonstration of what can go wrong on a river both too accessible and not accessible enough. The route to the river is often wet and muddy, but easily followed. Adventurous, mud-bogging four-wheelers drive there. 

But the river is remote enough the state can’t seem to justify putting a bridge over it even though the state-owned Alaska Railroad in conjunction with the Chugach National Forest  found $1.6 million in federal, recovery-act funding to put a 280-foot, world-class footbridge over the glacial Placer River just upstream from a perfectly serviceable railroad bridge to provide access to a trail that didn’t exist and to this day still doesn’t go much of anywhere.

“The Forest Service has built the longest clear span, glue laminate, timber truss bridge in North America,” Forest Service officials trumpeted when the bridge was completed in 2013. 

“This Placer River Trail Bridge serves as critical linkage between the Spencer and Grandview Whistle Stops. When complete the Project will including over 30 miles of trails connected five Whistle Stops, cabins and campsites.”

The trail remains a dream, but the Forest Service is still talking about it someday being built.

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The Placer River hiking bridge to nowhere foreground; the existing railroad bridge background/Craig Medred photo

Meanwhile, the unwary keep trooping down the Stampede Road on their pilgrimage to the bus. Halfacre has advocated bridging the river or, as a cheaper alternative, resurrecting a hand-tram the U.S. Geological Survey once used to cross the river.

“Healy would undoubtedly benefit from a bridge over the Tek, and if they don’t like ‘Into the Wild’ fans, I would think they would at least appreciate not having to send their fire department volunteers to rescue them anymore,” he said.

“It’s not about whether we should or should not glorify Chris. ‘Hikers’ who are horrendously unprepared for the river crossing, or in some cases just unlucky, are having to be rescued and occasionally dying at this crossing. Residents have tried a number of methods to dissuade people from going but it doesn’t work.

“A bridge would have solved every rescue or accident on the Stampede Trail that I am aware of. Many fans of Chris are opposed to the idea of a bridge because it ruins the adventurous nature of the hike as they see it, but I argue that is necessary. The USGS thought so when they put their cable up over the Tek, and that cable was there when Chris was there (though he was unaware of it) so a safe crossing is nothing new.”

Whether McCandless was aware or unaware of the cable is pure conjecture based on the fact he didn’t use it to cross the river to return to the safety of civilization in the summer of 1992. Had McCandless concluded the river impassable and known of the cable, the rational thing would have been to use it to reach safety.

But people don’t always behave rationally, and some have legitimately questioned McCandless’s state of mind. He once burned the last of his cash not to start a lifesaving fire, but to signify his separation from the material world. Many would see that act as irrational.

But the Krakauer-inspired myth of abandoning all to escape into the Edeneque wild of Alaska clearly resonates with some growing up today in a web-connected, Twitter-infected environment that has the gerbil cage of survival spinning so fast they can easily envision just wanting to get off.

That they come to Alaska and die warrants more than a shrug of the shoulders. When wealthier visitors fall victim to small-plane crashes, we don’t go “so what. Planes crash in Alaska all the time. What’s the big deal?”

Instead, the National Transportation Safety Board is called in to investigate. Exhaustive efforts are made to determine what caused the crash. And often suggestions are made as to equipment or behaviors that need to be changed to prevent future deaths.

The so-called “Magic Bus” of the Stampede Trail deserves similar consideration. Forget the baggage. McCandless might well have been a 24-year-old with issues that predictably led to his death, but trying to explain that to the true believers is no different than pointing out to a Born-Against Christian that there is no real evidence to support the idea there is a God of any sort.

They will be happy to construct evidence out of their belief that everything we see around us is the work of the Christian God. There are parallels to McCandless.

“McCandless himself wrote that he was waging a spiritual revolution to ‘kill the false being within.’ His method of battle was a kind of willful asceticism. It was as if he could pare away whatever was false or superficial, and, as he got more adept at it, he seemed almost to revel in the power of doing without, the euphoria of dispossession,” Chip Brown reported for The New Yorker at the time.

Trappist monks still fast for the ascetic experience.

 “I tended to be more interested in the physical aspects of asceticism (or the joint nature of body and mind), and the monks tended to focus on mental and spiritual asceticism,” author John Durant wrote after joining some of them. 

Some of the McCandless pilgrims might be better served by joining the monks, but telling them that is not going to change their behavior. Some of them will still come on the same strange pilgrimage to a dirty and decaying bus where a man incapable of surviving in the Alaska wilderness paid the ultimate price for his inadequacy.

Some think there is some greater meaning in that. They are entitled to their views. The greatest thing about the United States is that we are all free to believe whatever we want to believe.

In an effort to make a buck (nothing wrong with that) Krakauer turned the Stampede bus into an attractive nuisance. The deaths of those who died trying to cross the Tek are partly on him. That doesn’t, however, mean Alaskans should stand idly by and wait for more to die.

Halfacre is right in observing this is a problem that can be fixed. If, of course, people are willing to accept that there is a problem.

CORRECTION: An early version of this story had the body count wrong.


29 replies »

  1. Leave it, if they want to go, let them at their own risk.. Why is it that everyone wants to save everyone else by getting rid of temptation. If it isn’t the bus it will be something else. The world isn’t perfect and death is always a factor involved. Bubble wrapping it is so inconceivable, fact is people die.

    As far as rescue personnel being pulled in and involved, when some yea hoo decides they are smarter than they really are, well there’s a reason search and rescue do what they do. They enjoy the element as well, they just have more knowledge and are more equipped for the situation at hand when doing it. I suppose you might want to ask a search and rescue person, if all they ever did was pull kitty cats out of trees, I’m pretty sure they would find that quite boring.

  2. My view towards the Bus has changed over the years. I personally used it back in 1983 when on a dog trip we ran out of time heading to a cabin upstream. After the “incident” with the kid former representative Jeanette James was flying by helicopter out the Stampede Corridor in mid 1990’s checking out the Joe Fields proposed railroad to Kantishna, and she decided on her own that it was a morbid symbol to a terrible story, and wanted it flown out. I contacted her and told her not to make decisions that impact the locals without consulting with them. She agreed and reversed her opinion, agreeing that it was a good emergency shelter. For many years I stood by my belief that the Bus was still better there than removed, even with all the pilgrims hiking out. That changed for me after so many rescues and the first fatality. Take it out, move it to the Healy Chamber building, charge admission. But this last winter one of my guided dog trips heading to that cabin upstream ran into overflow problems with daylight disappearing, so my guide turned back to the Bus with the two older women guests and used it as an emergency shelter. It’s pretty rough now with no windows and severely vandalized, but it served it’s purpose. So it’s back to being an asset to me being there. I’m again and continue to be conflicted about hauling it out, burning it, or leaving it. But no bridge. Hikers in the Park have died on river crossings, like the McKinley, on the McGonagall Trail route, and there is no talk about putting up a bridge. The problem is equating a hike to the Bus with a “real” backcountry trip anywhere else in the rugged Alaska wilderness. And how to do that is beyond me. I personally respond to many emails and phone calls, and offer advice as best I can. Maybe the problem is the people buying into Krakauer’s garbage fairy tale are not like the prepared hikers elsewhere. Fantasy intruding on real life. Bridge won’t go in on park land, no matter how much is raised with a Go Fund Me account. State considers the bus abandoned property and won’t go through the process of deciding what to do with us. And NPS doesn’t control the land the bus is on, so they can only advise but no manage it. I don’t see things changing. I’m just getting so tired of the Into the Wild garbage. Maybe you too Craig?

  3. In the video, why the hell aren’t the people on the shore holding that rope tight? The whole accident is due to slacking rope…

    • i guess the answer is a.) because they couldn’t. the current there is strong; or b.) rope stretch. even if you string a 1/2 inch rope up between fixed objects and cinch it tight with a come-along, there is an amazing amount of stretch in it over any sort of distance. and if it’s a climbing rope, which is designed to stretch to absorb some of the shock in a fall, there is even more stretch.

  4. The bus and sad story that goes with it is part of Alaskan history that attracts all kinds of people to disover and visit our Beautiful and Mystic Last Frontier!

  5. For another perspective, read “Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks” (1980). Craig makes good points. But this book argues that there is need for some places where people can take severe life-threatening risks. Regardless, there will always be some who have to clean up after the mess. My main concern is for the first responders. I was just in Talkeetna and visited the cemetery to see a memorial of a ranger I worked with who later died attempting to rescue a climber on Denali. They never found the ranger’s body. People like that will always risk their lives to help others, even those with poor judgment.

  6. The bus does more good than bad for Alaska. The amount that pilgrims pay for airbnbs, food, rental vehicles and discretionary purchases far exceed the costs of infrequent rescues. You can’t make an economically valid justification for removing the bus. Build the hand tram.

  7. One item that’s not mentioned is concern for emergency personnel and other rescuers, as well as the fact it takes their time away when they could be saving other innocent accident victims. The responsible thing to do is remove the bus and majorly mark a safe crossing or build a safe bridge – harder done than said on incliment weather rivers with no high ground to utilize. Bottom line is it’s irresponsible to put first responders in safety and emotional bind time after time . Is it state land ? Whoever the land owner is should be responsible to clean it up unless original bus owner can be found. Otherwise Healy would be wise to do like Perry said and remove the bus and install close to town and put into service for tourists. 3 dead and counting is enough.

    • Opinion, always value your opinion but, what about back country skiers, snowmobiliers, and avalanches, those that pack raft and get swept away, or those thrill seekers that climb McKinnley and find themselves in trouble, or those that go fishing and find themselves requiring Frist Responders? I mean, what is the difference from those hiking to the bus? Compared to those thrills I mentioned, rescuing someone from the Stampede Trail seems a helluva lot less dangerous to First Responders in my opinion.

      • Context is the difference. You can’t realistically mitigate all the risks involved in people seeking “the great outdoors” in any number of ways. You can remove a bus and be done with that idiot bait.

        In the really-real world, the perfect is too often the mortal enemy of the best you can realistically do.

      • Matthew, point taken of course but, while 3 lives may have been lost by incompetance, 3 or more lives may have been saved by the bus.. So, while Darwin is alive and well, the bus also serves a different purpose which I feel is more important than saving morons.

      • Bryan in principle I agree with you . The real issue is first responders and other rescue personnel getting involved/ diverting their resources to deal with people that are creating their own accident. Not fair to the first responders. No one should have the memory of pulling someone’s dead lifeless wife sister Freind relative from the water . Currently 911 folks and policemen ect have a high rate of suicide due to emotional trauma from dealing with others mistakes. Not to mention their time being diverted when they could be helping someone else. Who is at fault if a rescuer gets in car /plane wreck or drowns trying to save someone else? . I very much agree with how Mathew stated his response.

  8. A gallon of diesel, some dry black spruce (hell, live black spruce), a match and in 20 mins melted aluminum/glass around a steel frame that will be aided in its disintegration by the heat.

    Build a bridge? You’ve got to be kidding!

  9. Mt. Denali comes to mind and the numerous out of state climbers who have been rescued CLIMBING TO A MOUNTAIN TOP. Why? The solo hiker that got eaten in Denali Park and the resources used to find him or recover his body. Those that needed to be rescued on the I’Rod or the countless, countless others who are drawn to one adventure or another in Alaska and needed rescue. Snowmobiliers come to mind?
    As I recall, the good people from Healy actually profit from that “Magic Bus” story. Hell, the bus used in the movie is the centerpiece and main attraction at the 49th State Brewery in Healy.
    Listen, if they pulled that bus out and put it in Healy people would whine – “it’s a shrine man, you can’t do that”, or people will whine if it is left there – ” I know what is best for others and I say someone could get hurt, remove it”. What if someone was attacked and killed by a bear or moose on the Stampede? What then? Would it be the buses fault? How many have died on the Parks or Seward HWY in the last 6 months doing everyday stuff?
    Thankfully people are drawn to adventure and challenges. Some will die in the process. Life goes on.

    • Oh, and another thing, that bus is actually an excellent emergency shelter or shelter in general for hunters, etc.. Has a nice bed and stove. That alone is worth leaving it there.

  10. The Stampede “Trail” is actually a winter Cat road. It was dozed in, if memory serves me correctly, during WWII to drag big sleds of molybdenum oar out of the mine at Stampede. When I went over it coming out of Minchumina to run the ’77 Iditarod, it was still quite a swath (not some narrow pristine wilderness path.) The bus could be jacked up, then once everything’s frozen up tight, dragged out. Set up in Healy, it would make quite a tourist draw.

    • Sure. Contract for someone with a tracked skidsteer with a flail on the front. One pass up the overgrown road going in; jack & skid-log the bus, back out he comes towing the bus and flailing a second pass.

      Put the bus someplace with plenty of parking, room for souvenir stands and little seasonal activities. It’s a win-win-win, eliminates the attractive nuisance, keeps tourists coming (and alive), and gets the old trail opened up again.

  11. The problem with folks losing their grip and being pulled off the guide-rope can be fixed by putting a carbiner over the rope and tying into it. Not that there aren’t things to know about how to do that right, and if not done right it can help drowned a person, because that’s true too.

    Water-crossings are a way bigger deal that people credit them … and fast-moving water is a WAY bigger deal. This is true All Over, apart from either the Teklanika or the McCandless bus.

    Look at all those nice Jesus people who went to Guyana with Jim Jones. All they wanted was to Praise the Lord, and over 900 of them ended up dead. By that reckoning, the Tek & Bus have a ways to go. They’re not so different really, Jim’s crew and the Into The Bus crew, are they?

  12. Fools will die as long as the bus is there to lure them to their deaths. Debatable, though, whether it should be removed as it does have a certain positive influence on the gene pool.

  13. Specifically speaking of the bus situation(Thanks Krakauer),either blow it up or hook a line and chopper it out. The folks who are attracted to this are an accident waiting to happen.

    • but couldn’t that be said of a goodly share of the young people attracted to wild Alaska, Bob? in retrospect, i know that when i got here in the ’70s i was an accident waiting to happen and several did.

  14. Although I am all for letting people explore the wilderness and helping out those in trouble, I feel we should not allow “garbage” in a natural setting that entices people to “set up” camp in a once pristine environment.
    Whenever we cut a trail into the wilderness and then propagate the location online and through publication, then the “wilderness” is lost and development is soon to follow.
    We are seeing this at the site of the “magic bus” and I have seen this throughout Alaska in my time up North.
    Denali mountain used to have a fraction of the “climbers” before the park service decided to “develop” the mountain.
    Now with fuel caches at 7,000 feet along side a “basecamp” with park service employees the landing on the Kahiltna is much different from when the Bradford Washburn’s expedition first pioneered the West Buttress route.
    Climbers are accustomed to the ability to seek refuge at 14,000 feet in the rangers heated medical tent and everyone would be lost without the “fixed ropes” that span the entire headwall “crux” leading to Thunder Ridge at around 16,000 feet on the mountain.
    The “development” will not stop…most recently the park service has maintained a “rescue” camp at 17,000 feet and places over 100 “pickets” on the treacherous traverse that leads to the cul at over 18,000 feet.
    With all the provisions in place and comfort in knowing a rescue team will pluck you off this mountain, we now see over 1,200 tourists cluttering this route each season.
    Many other “popular” destinations have seen the same faith.
    I can still remember hiking a goat trail to the Northface of Mt Yukla over a decade ago…
    My partner and I were some of the first climbers to tackle this objective.
    After word got out how cool the climbing was in this area, the Mountaineering Club of Alaska decided to “blaze” a new trail in and publicize the location.
    Shortly after this “development” the new route saw its first fatality…a young student from APU.
    Development does not enrich the wilderness experience, nor does it make it “safer”…it only invites those who otherwise would not make the journey without any assistance.

    • Flying the bus out seems like a great “training opportunity” for the Army Chinook crews. Auction it off on Craigslist (the other Craig) and donate the money back to the Healy area rescue services to reimburse them for their previous and future expenses rescuing the wandering & wayward.

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